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Scripting languages vs. programming languages: What's the difference?

This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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Kathryn Uhles, MIS, MSP, Dean, College of Business and IT

Reviewed by Kathryn Uhles, MIS, MSP,  Dean, College of Business and IT

This article was updated on 04/12/2024.

Scripting and programming languages help provide directions to software and operating systems to perform specific functions. While they’re both integral to the broader coding field, they have slightly different applications. Scripting typically helps automate processes and configure existing applications, while programming develops the applications themselves.

Success as a computer programmer, engineer or developer often requires understanding the differences between these languages. To help understand the distinction, we sat down with J.L. Graff, MBA, associate dean of UOPX’s College of Business and Information Technology.

As Graff explains, “Think of programming languages as a way to convert or translate our human thoughts into computer language. Scripting languages are usually used to interpret and execute one line or command at a time and are often simpler to write and implement. In addition, object-oriented scripting language [like JavaScript] is capable of developing web apps, scripts, cross-platform apps, games and pen-testing exercises.”

Here, we take a closer look at these two languages and their applications. 


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What is a scripting language?

Scripting languages rely on existing programs, known as interpreters, and thus require line-by-line conversion. The coder writes commands, which the interpreter executes one at a time. These languages need a prebuilt runtime environment in which the script is interpreted rather than compiled ahead of time. This means the code is not translated into machine code until it is executed.

This also makes scripting much less code-intensive and easier to learn and use than compiled languages. It also means scripting languages can be slower and less efficient.

Scripting languages have various purposes. Developers and engineers can use them to automate or enhance existing programs or websites, connect different components or processes, or work with databases and software written in different languages.
 

Examples of scripting languages 

Software, app and website development pros select scripting languages based on specific-use cases. For example, AppleScript is used to automate functions in Mac operating systems. Other scripting languages include Lua, Perl, PowerShell, VBScript, Bash and Zsh.

Many students learn scripting languages early in their academic careers primarily because the languages don’t require prior technology knowledge, are fast and easy to use and have many free resources, tutorials and trainings for a person to get started.

According to Graff, students at UOPX learn how to solve real-world problems and how scripting languages like Python can make code reusable, ease design and help with maintenance.

Common scripting languages include the following:

  • Python is one of the most popular general-purpose languages. It’s simple to learn the basics and easy to test and debug because of its efficiency. An active Python community makes it easy to find existing code packages and plug-ins to simplify the coding process.
  • Ruby is another user-friendly scripting language for server-facing web development. Programmers use it for websites, web applications and other development projects. Because of the syntax (the words and symbols used for code), Ruby is easy to learn for English speakers.
  • JavaScript is used to create and enhance interactive and media elements. Website and application developers often learn it for front-end (user-facing) projects. 
  • Lua is a lightweight scripting language known for creating fast processes. Because of this quality, it is well known for coding online games.

What is a programming language? 

Programming languages do not require an interpreter program. This makes them ideal for building programs from the ground up. Even though using programming languages for software development requires more time, developers often have more control over every aspect of the project.

Programming languages are compiled. Essentially, they rely on a specific program that translates code into a machine language — or machine code — for a computer or mobile device.

“Programming languages such as C++ are used to program robotics, self-driving vehicles and various media platforms,” Graff says.

However, programming languages do not need a whole environment to run as scripting languages do. This trait gives developers more control and flexibility. However, it can also increase development and maintenance time.

Examples of compiled programming languages 

Some of the first computer codes, including COBOL and Basic, were programming languages. Today, the following languages are widely used:

  • C++ is for expansive applications and large software projects. Many business systems use C++. Many macOSX and Microsoft Windows programs, including Microsoft 365, rely heavily on C++. 
  • C# is another member of the C language family; think of it as a cousin to C++. It is a component-oriented language — developers can use different modules to create complex programs without worrying about the exact code of each module.
  • Java is similar to C languages. However, its structure makes it ideal for internet-connected applications for websites and smartphones.

Even though programming languages are known to be more complicated, computer science and IT students can learn the basics of one or more programming languages through educational courses or their own experiences.

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Key differences between scripting and programming languages 

Even though scripting languages can be a subset of programming, there are some critical differences between the two in application:

  • Scripting languages are often used for tasks such as automation, configuration management and prototyping. Programming languages are often used for developing complex software applications.
  • Scripting languages are generally interpreted. Programming languages are typically compiled. This means that scripting languages are executed directly by the interpreter, while programming languages are first translated into machine code by the compiler before being executed.
  • Scripting languages are typically more dynamic. This means that scripting can be changed and extended while it is running, while programming languages must be recompiled after changes are made.

Some of the differences between scripting and programming languages are subjective. For instance, many professionals consider scripting languages like JavaScript easier to learn, use and test than programming languages. However, they lack the customization, scalability and standards of programming languages. 

The learning curve and accessibility 

Scripting languages can be more approachable from a student’s perspective. When choosing a computer language to learn, many opt for Python, Ruby or another popular scripting system.

At the same time, those intent on business software or mobile app development may want to spend time learning C++ or Java. Despite the steeper learning curve, these programming languages are often necessary for specific development projects. For example, Graff shares, “Java is often used in banking system projects. Java can be used to create a user-friendly interface for customers, back-end processing, security features, and integration with third-party systems such as credit card processors.”

Performance and efficiency 

Both programming and scripting languages have trade-offs related to performance and efficiency. While scripting languages are easier to use and test during the development process, they may lack the performance capabilities of programming languages, which can execute and run in any environment. 

Choosing the right language for your project 

“Scripting languages are a popular and suitable choice for web-based and internet-connected development,” says Graff. “Scripting languages can be ideal for automating tasks, web development and rapid prototyping. However, scalability, maintainability, project scope and expertise level are factors to consider when selecting programming languages.”

In many such projects, developers work to expand or enhance a program or app using an existing framework. Since scripting languages do not require memory, they are the preferred choice for online development.

For large-scale projects, scripting languages may be too slow and limiting. In addition to business systems, some mobile device apps requiring a high level of performance rely on Java or C++. Once the original program is complete, scripting languages can add functionality and enhancements.

There are several factors that could influence what programming language is used, such as the project requirements or the experience level of programmers. Institutional mandates or decisions made at the executive or senior developer level will also largely dictate the language used. New team members will have to showcase knowledge (or brush up on subjects) appropriately.

Scripted and compiled programming languages at UOPX 

Improvements in coding and hardware capabilities have enhanced scripting languages. The primary drawback of Python, JavaScript and their ilk is the need to interpret code one line at a time. However, faster hardware and more advanced approaches to scripting have closed the efficiency and performance gaps and given scripting languages some programming language-like attributes.

Anyone interested in a career in software engineering, programming or design can learn the basics of computer languages in a tech degree program or a computer-related certificate program. Meanwhile, advanced developer certifications often deal with topics like choosing the correct coding languages and framework for your project.

If these concepts excite you, consider earning a Scripted and Compiled Programming Languages Certificate (Undergraduate) at UOPX.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and its Writing Seminars program and winner of the Stephen A. Dixon Literary Prize, Michael Feder brings an eye for detail and a passion for research to every article he writes. His academic and professional background includes experience in marketing, content development, script writing and SEO. Today, he works as a multimedia specialist at University of Phoenix where he covers a variety of topics ranging from healthcare to IT.

 

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